There are few things as amazing as a moment shared by the many. The hushed anticipation as the referee lifts the whistle to his lips, a collective intake of breath at a near miss, the explosion of joy as the football ripples the net… in these moments, strangers are woven together in a way that lifts us up and makes us part of something bigger. The crowd in Rome certainly knew that they had done more than just watch this semi-final – they played a major role in one of the more remarkable nights in footballing history.
The Stadio Olimpico began filling up hours before the anthems. Tens of thousands of fans in the UEFO-Zone at the Piazza del Popolo paid polite attention to the broadcast of Wales vs Norway, but as soon as the final whistle blew in Baku, they swept up the Tiber towards the Monte Mario in search of live entertainment and much-needed respite from the late afternoon sun. The hum and hiss of the crowd became a roar as France and Spain jogged onto the pitch, and the two grand dames of the European stage received a royal reception from a full house in full voice, the Spanish Marcha Real just beating the Marseillaise in volume by virtue of having considerably simpler lyrics.
There’s a lot to admire about these two teams, and little to separate them on paper or pedigree. France came into this tournament as world champions without airs and graces – Didier Deschamps has taken a team full of superstars and moulded them in his humble and hard-working image. Luis Enrique’s Spain may still be evolving from the tiki-taka titans that swept all before them a decade ago, but they’ve progressed in this tournament on grit, determination, and a new directness. Both these teams are full of big characters, with refreshingly few primadonnas.
Fears that La Roja’s attack would lack a little bite without Diego Costa have proved unfounded. Without the pantomime villain to aim for, Spain have threatened from all over the pitch, and their opening goal here was a prime example. Griezmann would have benefitted from a cry of “He’s behind you!” as he hesitated on the ball outside Spain’s box: Isco nicked the ball off him, fed Busquets, and three raking passes later the ball was at the left-back Gayà’s feet in France’s final third. The Spaniard sent a low, hard cross infield towards Isco, who had somehow beaten the ball upfield, and though each pass to this point had accrued additional roars of delight from the crowd, when the ball arrived at Isco the cheers choked on astonishment. He took it on his chest, and shaped to strike the ball on the volley, prompting French centre-back Varane to throw himself between ball and goal to block. But instead of shooting, Isco brought the ball down with his left foot and cut it back behind him, pirouetting over his left shoulder to strike an angled shot with his right foot high into the top left corner of the goal. The crowd would have gone wild, but they were still gasping for breath. The sunset sky glowed red in solidarity.
France were rocked, and for a while Spain rolled the ball around with ease, urged on by cries of “Olé!” from an admiring audience. Busquets conducted the game, reminiscent of the hypnotic Spanish tempi of old, but Les Blues combined to flip the script on the half hour. Kanté cut out a pass from Ñiguez and passed to Pogba, who ran straight at the Spanish defence. Giroud looked to be tangled up with Martinez, but when Pogba slipped the ball through to the penalty spot, the bearded front-man darted onto it and poked the ball past De Gea to equalise. Above, the red Roman sky gave way to a deep blue.
But only seconds after the restart, Spain regained the upper hand. Morata kicked off to Busquets, who found the run of Moreno, and Moreno found Morata to make more problems for Les Bleus: 2-1 to Spain. France pushed for another equaliser before half time – first Pogba, then Griezmann muscled their way upfield and tried shots from distance, but it was scrappy stuff, Spain couldn’t capitalise on the space left in midfield, and both teams were happy when the half-time whistle blew.
There’s nothing like a few beers shared by 70,000 friends, and the second half kicked off with the crowd in a buoyant mood. France held their shape better, and they had to, as Spain looked threatening with their carefully choreographed passing and darting runs. For a while, La Roja held the upper hand, but there’s a reason Mbappe is the name on everybody’s lips. Picking up the ball on the hour, the Parisian prodigy danced his way into the box and played a quick one-two with Giroud before smashing home. That’s 6 goals from open play so far this tournament, and you wouldn’t bet against him rivalling Platini’s record of 9 for all-time UEFO top scorer.
At 2-2, with 30 minutes to play, the crowd were on the edge of their seats. These are two teams built on control, and with so much at stake the game became a cagey affair. Deschamps made a conservative substitution, replacing Giroud with Ndombole on 70 minutes, which prompted Enrique to swap Busquets for Rodri, and Thiago for Asencio. If the intention was to inject attacking fervour, it backfired: if anything, the Spanish midfield retreated into itself, forcing Isco and Moreno to drop deeper for the ball, and isolating Morata up front. The middle of the pitch was suddenly too crowded, suffocated, like two spent swimmers who cling together and choke their art. The crowd were stifled too, and the boisterous sing-song gave way for a while to a tense hiss.
But then suddenly, amidst the red and blue static, a single voice rang out from the Curva Sud: “Qui ne saute pas n’est pas Français! Ay!” The cry rippled around the stadium, and suddenly, the joint was jumpin’ again, and France flowed. Mbappe beat two tackles to shoot just wide of the post, Ndombole tried a shot from 30 yards that De Gea tipped over the bar, a Fekir shot was punched away into the path of the onrushing Pavard, who, perhaps distracted by memories of his goal of the tournament in 2018, could only manage a mis-kick that disappeared into the night sky. In a moment of comic brilliance, he wheeled away to the French bench and replicated the clenched-fisted knee slide celebration from his world cup equaliser. It brought the house down.
The laughter was still ringing around the ground when Moreno took De Gea’s goal kick on his chest, but it caught in the Spanish throats when Kanté nipped in to the tackle. The ball broke to Pogba, and the Manchester United man, always a target for the critics, finally justified his hairdo. Marauding through midfield, he barely broke stride as he went past Ñiguez, then Rodri, before deceiving Nacho with a salsa-hipped shimmy and chipping the ball over De Gea for the winner. It was a goal of such beauty, borne of such electric energy, that an ovation was the only appropriate response.
And we were still on our feet applauding when the final whistle blew a few minutes later. Not just for the goal, or the game, but for the whole affair and our role in it. The players swapped shirts and walked around the pitch together, returning the acclaim that washed down on them from the Monte Mario to the Tribuna Trestevere. This is football, this shared experience. These are the nights we live for. If we couldn’t be together like this, be taken outside ourselves and at the same time somehow made whole by these moments, I think we’d all be a little less human – and a whole lot worse off – for it.